AH Part I: How to Hack Amtrak (Legally) and Immediately Save 76%
As of January 2016, Amtrak has changed their redemption program from region-based to distance-based. As such, the deal below no longer works as written. If nothing else, I hope it shows you some terrific short-distance lines available!
These posts are also a way to share how I, not being wealthy, travel as much as I do – this is something available to just about everyone.
You can go on Amtrak’s site today and instantly save up to 76% off the actual fares. Nothing illegal or unethical. It’s totally legit, and couldn’t be simpler.
How is this possible?
Let me give you the one-sentence answer RIGHT HERE:
All you need to do is purchase points from Amtrak.
Interested in a bit more detail and analysis? Glad you asked… :-)
In an effort to demonstrate how I can afford to be a full-time traveler (because it’s not from a trust fund :-)), I’ll be sharing more about my travel hacking methods…
I recently took the train from Portland, OR to Seattle, WA. For a coach seat, this trip costs $52.
Now, with Amtrak’s loyalty program, Amtrak Guest Rewards, one can get that same fare for only 1000 points.
How much is 1000 points? $27.50, which is almost HALF the normal price. Pretty nice, right? Oh, and how much does it cost to join Guest Rewards? Nada, zip, zilch – it’s FREE.
Why is this such a great deal?
Boston, MA to New York’s Penn Station is roughly the same distance as PDX-SEA and requires 3000 points (three times as many); in terms of price, BOS-NYP is $68 (30% more).
Now this 1000-point deal doesn’t just stop at PDX-SEA. You can go all the way from Eugene, OR to Vancouver, BC (360 miles), or from San Diego to Santa Barbara (300 miles) – all for only 1000 points! In fact, you can go around different sections of the ENTIRE COUNTRY for only 1000 points!
You can use this 1000 point deal for ANY segment on the lines above. You don’t need to ride the entire line to get the deal.
Only want to go from LA to San Deigo? 1000 points. Or how about LA up to Santa Barbara? Yup, just 1000 points! For those familiar with Southern California (like me), if I knew there was a way to pay less than $30 and enjoy the ride in comfort with no delays (instead of sitting on the 5 or the 101 inching along), I’d take that offer in a heartbeat!
IMPORTANT NOTE: usually purchasing points is a bad deal, as the companies set it up to make money. In general, I don’t recommend acquiring points this way, but this deal is definitely an exception.
So you see: on Amtrak, you can travel 360 miles for less than $30! With gas prices averaging $3.50+ per gallon, you might be able to pull that off with a Hybrid, but it’d be close. With the train, though, all you have to do is sit there. No traffic, no gas stations, no hassle. You can even enjoy the ride (catch up on that book!) and actually see the sights, instead of staring at the back of the car in front of you!
Here are the TOP 5 Routes with this deal:
- CASCADES: Vancouver, BC – Seattle – Tacoma – Portland – Salem – Eugene: save 76%
- SALUKI: Chicago – Carbondale, IL: save 68%
- ILLINOIS ZEPHYR: Chicago – Quincy, IL: save 60%
- PACIFIC SURFLINER: San Luis Obispo – Santa Barbara – LA – San Diego: save 53%
- BLUE WATER: Port Huron, MI – Chicago, IL: save 45%
And here are the Routes where you LOSE with this deal:
- LINCOLN SERVICE: Chicago, IL – St. Louis, MO: 15% more
- HIAWATHA: Milwaukee, WI – Chicago, IL: 20% more
- DOWNEASTER: Portland, ME – Boston, MA: 45% more
**savings based on lowest fare possible from end-to-end of line, on a Saturday in July
**fares may be higher based on date and time you search; that means you might find a better deal = higher savings!
Here’s the full table breakdown of all the routes, the savings, and value per point (click to enlarge).
For those who are more visual learners (and because I’m an Excel nerd – to the MAX!), here’s a chart with the savings information for each line (click to enlarge).
THE FULL LIST
Lines available with this deal and whether or not it’s worth pursuing with the 1000 points:
(just to clarify – these lines run in both directions – click-through for detailed information on each line)
- Pacific Northwest
- Cascades: Eugene-Vancouver, thru PDX & SEA, plus free WiFi (awesome)
- Saluki: Carbondale-Chicago (awesome)
- Illinois Zephyr: Quincy-Chicago (excellent)
- Blue Water: Chicago-Port Huron (great)
- Pere Marquette: Chicago-Grand Rapids (great)
- Carl Sandburg: Quincy-Chicago (good)
- Heartland Flyer: Fort Worth-Oklahoma City (good)
- Illini Service: Carbondale-Chicago (ok)
- Missouri River Runner: St. Louis-Kansas City (nope)
- Hoosier State: Indianapolis-Chicago (nope)
- New England
- Downeaster: Boston, MA-Portland, ME, plus WiFi (bad)
- North Carolina
- Piedmont: Charlotte-Raleigh (ok)
Yes, most of the lines are local to the Midwest, but if that’s where you’re traveling, you’re in luck! As mentioned, the Cascades line is an exceptional deal, and the California lines (especially the Surfliner) look pretty good, too!
A quick word on VALUATION (value of each point): just like with stocks, you want to buy points when the value is low, and use them when the value is high. To calculate valuation, you divide the actual cost by the number of points required.
Actual Cost / Points Required = Valuation
Remember that BOS-NYP trip from earlier? It costs $68 or 3000 points for a coach seat.
$68 / 3000 = $.02 value per point (not a great deal)
In the chart above, you’ll see that the value of a ticket on the entire Cascades line is a whopping $.12 per point (117/1000) – that’s ridiculously amazing! I’ve never seen anything that good! Most of the time the exchange value is around $.01-.02, some times $.03-.04 if you’re lucky or know how to really hack the system (the companies are looking to break even or make money with their point programs).
Another example of valuation…
The trip I took from Portland-Seattle was in Business Class. That ticket would have cost me $68 if I bought it outright. Fortunately, there’s also a deal with upgraded classes on these lines: seats are only 1500 points. (Biz Class in other routes start at 6500 points!)
To purchase 1500 points through Amtrak is only $41.25, a 40% savings right off the bat! The value of each point when I purchase them is $.027 (41.25/1500), but when I exchange those points for that Business Class seat on PDX-SEA, the value is $.045 (68/1500) – the value almost doubles without me doing a thing! If only the stock market worked that easily! :-)
A note on Business Class: yeah, it rules. Not gonna lie. This deal definitely works in terms of value for Biz Class, though you may see a few less percentage points in savings and maybe a penny drop in value, but it’s still a great deal! Plus, you get a reserved, comfy leather seat, which means no waiting in the humungous coach line at the station, not to mention other perks, like silence, comfort and a $3 coupon good at the snack bar (score)!
STEP ONE – JOIN AMTRAK’S LOYALTY PROGRAM
- Visit the Amtrak Guest Rewards site
- Select “Enroll” in the top right box (see screenshot)
- On the next screen, enter your login and personal information and click “Enroll” at the bottom of the screen
- You’ll receive an email confirmation of your AGR login details
STEP TWO – BUY POINTS
- Once you’ve received your Guest Rewards information via email, go back to the Rewards site and click “Log in” (in the same box as “Enroll”)
- Enter your account information
- Click on “EARN” at the top of the site (see screenshot)
- Click on “Buy Points” in the left sidebar
- Select “BUY POINTS FOR YOURSELF” (if you’re feeling generous, select the “FRIENDS AND FAMILY” option :-))
- Enter your account information and select “1000 points – $27.50” (or “1500 for $41.25” if Biz Class is how you roll)
- Enter your credit card information
- Select purchase
- NOTE: The points will be posted to your account within 72 hours.
STEP THREE – GET YOUR TICKET (AND SAVE MONEY!)
- Once the points have been posted, click on “Redeem” at the top of the site (next to “Earn”)
- Under “MOST POPULAR,” select “Show More” under the “COACH CLASS – SPECIAL ROUTES” (see screenshot)
- On the pop-up screen, select “BOOK”
- On the Find a Ticket screen, enter your travel info: departing and arrival stations, your date, and time preference (if any)
- On the Select Train screen, select the route and time desired (if more than one option exists). Check the “Important” box and click “Next” (see screenshot)
- On the Passenger Info screen, enter your Amtrak.com login information (different from your Guest Rewards – annoying, I know) to populate your personal info; otherwise, enter it manually, and click “Next”
- On the Redeem screen, review all details and click “Redeem Points”
- The Confirmation screen will have your itinerary and confirmation number – all of this information will also be emailed to you
- NOTE: The email is not your ticket – you will pick that up at the station. You can either print out your emailed confirmation or use a credit card to access your ticket at their “Quick-Trak” self-service kiosks, or go to a ticket agent.
That’s it! You’ve just used points to book a ticket! No fees, no taxes – couldn’t be simpler!
Guess what else just happened? You just hacked the system. Feels pretty good, right?
- This deal could go on for years, or end at any time. Like with the US Mint/$1 coins, when companies get word of what’s going on, sometimes they take action.
- I recently learned that if you have the Amtrak World Mastercard, you get a 5% rebate on points redeemed automatically redeposited in your account. So instead of it costing 1000 points, it will actually only cost 950 – an even better deal and an even higher valuation!
- Refer-a-friend to the Amtrak Guest Rewards program and if they travel within 90 days of joining, you each get a 500 point bonus. See the AGR website for details.
- There are often promotion codes and discounts – what is outlined above may or may not be the best deal out there at the time you want to book your trip. This may just be the shortest amount of work.
Just a reminder: this is the FIRST in a series of posts on train travel – if you’d like to be the first to know when the others are published, just subscribe below.
What’s your best Amtrak Hack, by using the current system?
I’d love to hear your answer along with any other comments you have below. Hope to see you on the train!
Until next time,
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